Are CTA Buses Disgusting and Dangerous, or Just Slow?

Detail from an anti-littering ad from the CTA's Courtesy Campaign. Image: CTA
Detail from an anti-littering ad from the CTA's Courtesy Campaign. Image: CTA

During recent budget hearings at City Hall, Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld discussed why Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to add a 15-cent surcharge to ride-hailing trips next year, 20 cents by 2019, to help fund the CTA makes sense. Scheinfeld talked the need to reverse the trend of falling CTA bus ridership, exacerbated by the growth of service like Uber and Lyft by improving bus service to make the travel mode more appealing to customers, and she used colorful language to do so.

“We want [the CTA] to be the mode of choice so people don’t feel like they have to … be that single occupancy vehicle stuck in that traffic,” Scheinfeld said, according to a report from the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman. “So, how do we make buses sexy? How do we make it something people can rely on to get to work on time, to get to school on time, to get to that doctor’s appointment.”

Scheinfeld cited the $41 million Loop Link bus rapid corridor, with its (theoretically) car-free lanes, raised boarding platforms, and limited stops as an example of efforts to improve bus speed and reliability. The system seems to be resulting in modest improvements in travel times.

“We’re learned a lot from Loop Link. It was a pretty bold move. It continues to show improvements in bus speeds,” Scheinfeld said. “But we’re also looking at other corridors, and there’s a whole spectrum of things we can do. It doesn’t have to be something of such a magnitude.”

While a few years ago the city proposed building a more robust, center-running BRT system on Ashland Avenue from 95th to Irving Park, projecting that it would nearly double bus speeds, that plan was shelved after stiff opposition from some residents and merchants. Instead, CDOT has recently been implementing transit signal prioritization on Ashland and Western, with “smart” stoplights that shorten reds and extend greens to help buses run more efficiently.

Mary Mitchell
Mary Mitchell

In response to Scheinfeld’s comments, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell scoffed at the idea that bus service could ever be “sexy,” and portrayed riding the bus as a repellant and risky business. “How about this,” Mitchell wrote. “Try making sure buses are safe, clean, dependable and able to transport passengers with some degree of dignity.”

Although buses frequently pass by the building where Mitchell lives, she said she rarely rides them because “CTA can be, well, repugnant.” Having strangers’ bodies inadvertently touching hers while she sits is “repulsive.” Hanging onto a strap while standing on a crowded bus, as well as having someone stand in front of you when you’re seated, is “gross.”

Mitchell also argued that rules and laws are rarely enforced on buses, forcing passengers to put up with everything from loud phone conversations to solicitation to indecent exposure. She also noted that able-bodied riders don’t always give up their seats to seniors and people with disabilities.

“But the biggest challenge CTA faces is the perception that public transportation is just not safe,” Mitchell wrote. She added that the number of serious crimes on the CTA rose by 16 percent between 2015 and 2016, with most of the cases involving thefts of items like cell phones.

“CTA is still the transport of last resort for many because we can’t take all the drama,” Mitchell concluded. “Scheinfeld should forget about ‘sexy’ — safety would do.”

“While crime does occasionally occur on CTA buses and trains—as it does anywhere else in the city—overall CTA is a very safe environment,” responded spokesman Brian Steele. “Crimes [of all types] in 2016 were actually lowest of any year since 2008, with about one serious crime on CTA per every quarter-million passenger trips.”

An ad from the CTA's Courtesy Campaign. Image: CTA
An ad from the CTA’s Courtesy Campaign. Image: CTA

As for issues with passengers failing to follow CTA rules, Steele pointed to the agency’s Courtesy Campaign, launched in 2105, featuring clever ads reminding customers to refrain from rude behavior like talking loudly on phones, placing bags on seats, playing loud music, and not yielding seats to those who need them. “Also, in fall 2016, CTA launched a ‘Rules of Conduct’ campaign to highlight basic rules such as no soliciting, no littering, keeping feet off seats, etc.,” he said. “We also work with police and our K-9 security teams to enforce these rules.”

One has to accept the basic reality of big city transit – sharing sometimes-crowded public spaces with strangers – to be happy using the CTA. But Mitchell is correct that there’s room for improvement on the system when in comes to safety, cleanliness, and courtesy. And it’s true the perception and reality of how safe riding CTA buses is may vary depending on what route you’re on.

However, it’s likely that the biggest factors in falling CTA bus ridership are declining bus speeds due to increasing traffic congestion, and competition from new forms of transportation, especially ride-hailing, as detailed in the Active Transportation Alliance’s new report on strategies to reverse the trend. As the study outlines, it is possible to make the bus a more attractive option via relatively inexpensive strategies to shorten travel times and improve reliability, including building many more miles of dedicated lanes with photo enforcement, adding more more transit signal prioritization, and implementing prepaid, all-door boarding.

So far Chicago has only piloted these features. But if the city implements them in a bold manner, all across the city, the bus will finally become a speedy travel option, if not a sexy one.

  • Jeremy

    If the city increased the breadth of the TOD ordinance to encourage high density residences along bus routes, ridership might increase. Now, the TOD ordinance only applies to areas near trains.

  • rduke

    To answer the question in the headline, no, they’re just slow. Most times I opt out of the bus it’s because the wait time is the same length as an entire Uber trip, ie, by the time I arrive via ride share to where I want to go, I’d just be getting on the bus, barring any delays.

    That said, I ride the bus often and very rarely are they actually disgusting. Some rubbish here and there, sure, maybe one seat with a weird stain I won’t chance sitting in unless I have to, but those are hardly indignities. Maybe once I’ve gotten on a bus that smelled strongly of urine, but that’s about 10 times as rare as it happening on the L.

    Dangerous? I’ve had far more dangerous or uncomfortable run ins on the Blue Line than I have any 49 or 60. The presence of a driver in close proximity keeps most folks on their “best” behavior, barring loud phone conversations or music (but those happen everywhere, get over it. Even the Metra has this problem).

    Busses are perfectly fine if you aren’t in a hurry, and you aren’t a totally sheltered snowflake afraid of a candy wrapper and having to sit next to a stranger. The issue is that most people are in a hurry. Most times even a bike is faster than a bus.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It also applies to areas around bus rapid transit stations.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Barring an absolutely terrible rider experience, door to door travel time and cost are going to the primary factors in most people’s choice of travel mode. People have a price that they are willing to spend to save time. When it was bus vs cab, the cost of a cab was high enough that more people were willing to wait for a bus to save money. Ride sharing has narrowed the cost gap so fewer people are willing to wait.

    Divvy has probably also played a role in declining. Since Divvy rolled out, trips where I used to take a train to a bus, I now take a train to a Divvy station. There’s no waiting to transfer to a Divvy, and on most routes even on a Divvy I can bike as fast as a bus.

  • It hasn’t really narrowed the cost gap, VCs are paying people to use ride sharing by artificially lowering the cost.

  • Cameron Puetz

    What matters is the cost paid by the person choosing how to travel. Travelers are thinking about how to spend their money and their time. Passengers also aren’t paying the full cost of the bus trip.

  • The bus and el are way cleaner than they used to be. Perhaps some of it is due to the disappearance of newspapers. But a lot is due to people wanting to keep a clean rider environment clean.

  • rwy

    I can walk to the purple line (~1 mile) in the time it would take the 97 to the train. Also there is no place to sit while waiting for the bus. If I can get a family member to drive me then I have them drive me to a train station.

    I very rarely feel unsafe on the CTA. I think it’s mainly women that feel unsafe on public transportation.

    Yes Uber is fast. Uber can also have it’s problems. Drivers have trouble finding the pickup point, drivers canceling the trip, or drivers getting lost while on route. If the trip on public transit doesn’t take a ridiculous amount of time I’d rather take public transit.

  • Jeremy

    Are there any BRT stations outside the Loop?

    Of course, alders would still need to approve apartment buildings with little to no parking, and most are afraid to do that.

  • Joshua Heffernan

    Dedicated lanes are a bigger lift politically, but all-door boarding and signal prioritization should already be happening. Another thing that would help is eliminating stops. To give one example the 74 Fullerton bus heads westbound from the Fullerton Red/Brown station and stops at Seminary, Racine, Surrey, Southport, Greenview, Ashland, etc. Eliminate half of those and the bus is still stopping every 1/4 mile, which is more than enough.

  • Jeremy

    A more egregious example are the morning routes on Sheridan. The 134, 143, 151, and 156 all stop at the same stops on Sheridan. Because the stops only can accommodate one bus at a time, buses sit waiting. There should be 134/143 stops and 151/156 stops.

  • Tooscrapps

    Nothing ruins my morning like someone boarding the westbound 76 Diversey at Mildred. :)

  • blk

    how do u do a full report on a service u RARELY ride, travel times vary and first and foremost SAFTEY COMES FIRST..Being a RESPONSIBLE adult you r gonna be smart enuff to yrself plenty of time for moving about!!!!! just like with any other form of transportation whether it be a bike bus car skateboard boat or plane..YOU ARE GONNA HIT a snag or TRAFFIC, weather factors can play a part as well as a mechanical issue can pop up.. ANYTHING can hpn..smfh and as far as the buses being nasty..IF NASTY ASS PEOPLE DIDNT DROP WASTE OR LEAVE SHIT ON THE BUSES THEY WOULD STAY CLEAN. THEY GET SERVICED EVERY NIGHT. Or how about you people follow the rules…NO TALKING TO THE DRIVER WHILE THE BUS IS IN OPERATION (slows dwn the drivers because yr DISTRACTING them) AND NO EATING NO DRINKING on the bus.(trash is left behind by you so now its gross and disgusting) AND NO RADIO PLAYING..AND THEY HV TOLD YOU PEOPLE TO SHUT UP NOBODY WANTS TO HEAR YR STUPID CONVERSATIONS..(NO COMMON COURTESY) For the ones that hv yr life in their hands..Never mind the DISTRACTION,
    you don’t mention these facts….some people got a lot of nerves…I can say what ever I want bcuz I write articles face…ughhh

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Not yet. The ordinance was written with the Ashland BRT plan in mind.

    If a developer is not requesting a zoning change for additional height, etc., they generally don’t need approval from the alderman to build parking-lite or parking-free projects within a TOD zone.

  • oogernomicon


  • Carter O’Brien

    We did a commuter survey of our workforce in 2012 and the most commonly cited barrier to public transit was a safety concern, connected to waiting for the bus “after hours” when our campus can feel a bit desolate.

    That suggests to me it’s not the bus itself that is always what people (not Mary Mitchell specifically) are expressing a concern over so much as a larger sense that “taking the bus,” the complete experience, seems more dangerous than the L or driving. I would say that bus tracker has helped a lot in this regard, as people are now able to minimize time spent standing around on a street that may be unsafe for any variety of reasons (poorly lit, known issues with street crime, etc).

  • FlamingoFresh

    Another factor leading to a decrease in ridership is the unfamiliarity of the transit system network. What train/buses to take? Where the stops are located? Sure there’s apps and maps for these type of things but I doubt people are taking their time to do research and discover what line to take and where to catch it.

  • troll e troll

    Really, that has to be the silliest reason ever.

  • troll e troll

    Build the Ashland BRT

  • Hopeless

    The CTA is disgusting. I ride the red line everyday. I’ve seen people per on the walls, take their pants off, roll up joints and smoke, get drunk and throw up everywhere, and constantly threaten other passengers. CTA staff doesn’t give a shit about the rules they have. No one enforces anything, no one cares about the useless signs they put up. If I didn’t have to ride this train I wouldn’t.


Some Bus Service Will Be Better In 2016, But Better Funding Needed

2016 just might be the year of the Chicago bus. The Chicago Transit Authority is restoring express service and speeding up local service on Ashland and Western avenues, running six bus routes on dedicated bus lanes downtown with the new “Loop Link” corridor, and piloting restored service on the #11-Lincoln and #31-31st Street bus routes. Pace will also […]